A climate of exclusion

Kat Jordan surveys the gender imbalance at Cop26 in Glasgow and suggests you won’t save the planet with half the planet outside the room

THE Cop26 climate change summit in November will set the narrative for our collective response to a global emergency. Inevitably it will be a male-dominated narrative because of the gender imbalance around the top table in Glasgow. Half the planet, in other words, will be excluded from deciding the future of the planet. Yet it is widely acknowledged that the role of women is critical in tackling the climate crisis.

In an age of gender inequality, men and women and non-binary persons often have different options when it comes to dealing with the impact of climate change. For example, there is a growing body of evidence that women and girls are generally more vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change than their male counterparts. This is not because there is something inherently more vulnerable about women, but because of social, political and cultural structures that deprive women of access to education and resources.

Unfortunately climate change exacerbates the existing outcomes of entrenched gender inequality. Eighty-five per cent of the Cop26 delegates from developing countries will be men. Yet, in the real world beyond the conference wall, there is a two-way relationship between improved gender equality and increased climate resilience. Progress in one can drive progress in the other to create a virtuous circle of sustainable and equitable development.

At present, more than 70% of girls experience high levels of gender inequality – predominantly in developing countries – according to a new study by Nature Communications. (Unfortunately the study doesn’t include non-binary people in its analysis or investigate transgender inequality.) In many countries women and girls are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to education, work and income by negative social and economic factors.

It is no accident that women constitute most of the world’s poor. Because climate change is intrinsically linked to poverty, impacting the lives of the world’s poorest people the most, women inevitably bear the brunt of environmental degradation. Indeed you could say that they are the shock absorbers of climate change.

Global warming negatively affects the production, availability and accessibility of food. Water scarcity also increases the burden on women who are more likely to be responsible within their families for securing water. In some cases, women and girls are forced to walk great distances to find water when local sources dry up. High temperatures and salinisation of drinking water can impact maternal and child health.

Statistics show that women are much more likely to be killed by climate disasters than men are (largely owing to women’s roles working outdoors, it seems, and their being unable to flee a disaster zone, as a result of their roles as carers for children and the elderly). In developing countries, women face a heightened risk of sexual and gender-based violence as a result of climate-related disasters which often render them homeless and therefore more vulnerable to early marriage, adolescent pregnancy, rape and trafficking. Women defending ecosystems and resources often pay a high price.

Agents of change

However, just as women and girls are most adversely affected by climate change, they are also uniquely important to a solution. Women have a strong body of knowledge and expertise because they have always been on the climate frontline, acting as stewards of natural and household resources. Every day, billions of women around the world make decisions that influence the environment, whether it’s as cooks for their families (choosing food and fuel), as farmers (influencing soil carbon emissions), or as consumers (making purchasing decisions). In recent decades, according to UN figures, 55% of the improvement in food security in developing countries came from programmes promoting women’s empowerment through improved healthcare, education, and representation in government. So efforts to tackle gender inequality can play a key role in how countries adapt to the growing risks posed by climate change. The inclusive approach, in other words, is not only a legal, ethical and moral obligation, it will also make climate action more effective.

Women are agents of change because they have a radically different relationship to power. It’s one that challenges the dominant political narrative of our time – that we are naturally competitive and individualistic, and should therefore always be striving for limitless growth, regardless of the planet’s finite resources. By looking instead to examples of women coming together to take direct action (from the Dakota Access Pipeline protests to the ‘anti-fracking Nanas’ who saw off Cuadrilla in Lancashire), it might be possible to change the course of climate change.

Evidence shows that a lack of gender balance in key political decisions is also more likely to prevent effective action to tackle the climate emergency. Some countries are understood to be opposed to including language on gender equality on the Cop26 agenda. But it is essential that the summit redresses the imbalance and that countries’ pledges (NDCs) include a commitment to tackling gender inequality as well as global warming.

Kat Jordan is an economist

Photo by Pascal Bernardon

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